March 23, 2015
Indycars will be faster this year. Recent testing at Barber Motorsports Park demonstrated that the new “aero body kits” generate far more downforce, which resulted in nearly every car in the field beating last year's pole time.
The aero kits are basically a collection of wings strapped on the DW 12 chassis designed to make the cars look more appealing and slightly different for fans. Indycar is selling the new found speed as a positive, despite the fact that a one-second edge over last year's lap times cannot be detected from the grandstands with the naked eye.
The drivers seem to be pleased. “The aero kits produce so much more downforce and there's a lot of grip, so the cars are faster everywhere," reigning Indycar series champ Will Power said. "I would expect to break lap records just about everywhere.”
Ganassi driver Scott Dixon's comment was perhaps the most revealing. “Some of the corners here in the old cars were almost flat, and now they're flat out when you go through them.”
As NASCAR proved years ago at the so-called “restrictor plate” tracks, racing does not improve when everyone can take the corners flat out. On the contrary, it becomes painfully boring. Passes are so common as to become meaningless, and are born of drafting rather than driver skill or mechanical superiority. In other words, it becomes more of a drafting parade and less of an automobile race.
Indycar's version of flat out racing promises to be even less appealing than NASCAR's. As aerodynamic grip grows and tires become wider and stickier, the racing groove becomes ever more narrow. As the racing groove narrows, the passing opportunities become more rare especially on the street and road circuits that comprise most of the Indycar schedule.
As the passing opportunities become more rare, we risk becoming more Formula-One-like at every race.
Many recent decisions for the series appear to be band-aids to cover up the unintended consequences of the last decision.
Spec cars created a series of evenly matched machines where no one could pass, so Indycar responded with the “push to pass” buttons and sticky “red” tires to create competition.
Fans noticed that the identical DW 12 spec cars looked like identical spec cars. So the series mandated aero body kits to make them look different.
The aero body kits generate more downforce and greater speeds. As a result, teams that don't qualify up front this season will be faced with the near impossible task of passing identical chassis that are evenly matched within a few tenths of a second on a racing groove that is made more narrow by higher speeds than we've ever seen. Each of these decisions is made with the best of intentions, but there's no guarantee that they will culminate in a better product.
Eventually, Indycar is going to run out of band-aids. But the immediate future is not difficult to predict. In 2015, fans will hear a lot about new track records and amazing new speeds while the product on the pavement may actually offer less passing than anything we've seen in recent years. I hope I'm wrong, but more downforce and sticky tires don't produce a wider groove and more passing. They just don't.
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